Poetry in Translation: Fadi Azzam’s ‘This Is Damascus, You Sons of Bitches’

This is Damascus, You Sons of Bitches

By Fadi Azzam 

Translated by Ghada Alatrash 

Image: Wikimedia

She is Baghdad’s rival sister, Beirut’s bait, Cairo’s envy, Amman’s dream, Mecca’s conscience, Cordoba’s jealousy, Jerusalem’s eyes, the coquetry of cities, and a crutch for every aged caliph throughout history.

She is Damascus, a woman with seven wonders, five names, and ten titles; she is an abode for a thousand saints, a school for twenty prophets, and an inspiration for fifteen gods. 

She is Damascus, the more ancient and the more orphaned, the beginning of dreams and their ends, the starting point for conquests and their convoys, the moseying of poems, and every poet’s trap. 

From her balcony appeared Hisham wooing a passing Umayyad cloud after having finished irrigating her Ghouta with blood. And it was from Damascus that the Falcon of Quraysh flew dreamily until he faced his death in the Pyrenees Mountains. 

This is Damascus. She has tolerated everyone—the pimps and the dreamers, the petty and the revolutionaries, passers-by and residents, those addicted to biting her, those who chewed her nails, the losers, the convicts, the innocent, and the lustful. 

They fed off her breasts until her Barada dried up, and so she offered her blood, trees, and shade. And when her Ghouta was consumed, she offered Mount Qasioun, her beloved mole, while they drooled, raided, assaulted, and invited all kinds of bastards to take their share from her innocence. 

But this was Damascus, and each time they sucked her marrow, her youth was renewed. 

This is Damascus, O Arabs or Arabized, a qibla and a station for your tourists. 

She may have bestowed the title of Shaykh to those wearing sandals or a dishdasha, but she only recognized Ibn ‘Arabi as worthy of this title, for it was he who cried out from her grounds: “The God you worship is under my feet.” And when Earth became too small for him, Damascus cradled him under her breasts, named a neighborhood in his honor, and said, “Be free, for you are the most exalted of the dead.” In return, he sang in her honor, “Anything that is not feminine is not worthwhile.” 

This is Damascus. She does not pay heed to two: executioners and victims. Instead, she archives them and brings them back in time, smaller in size, so as to engrave them as mosaics on her walls or as lines in the pages of her books; meanwhile, Ibn Asaker becomes a little restless, washes his hands, performs his ablutions, and begins to dip his feathered quill in his inkwell, not to write but to trace the letters of her alphabet, ones mined in the Guarded Tablet. 

Damascus is she who mastered all languages while no one understood her, for she is not to be read in words but by the counting of God’s laughter and angels’ mischief. 

After destroying Baghdad, Hulagu Khan converted to Islam in Damascus. After liberating Jerusalem, Salah al-Din was pleased to die in Damascus. Hussein ibn Ali, John the Baptist, and Jaafar al-Barmaki offered their heads to Damascus so that she might be content, and between the tomb of Zainab and that of Yazid are five leagues and a Damascene oleander.

This is Damascus who does not love anyone nor care about her haters. She is witty and blunt. She kicks out her lovers but does not shed their blood. She devotes her time to dealing with strangers who think themselves masters only to suddenly find themselves caught underneath her nails. 

This is Damascus, like a goddess, skilled at God’s work and his cunning. Like Him, she is patient but not forgetful. Like Him, she loves beauty, may rest for a week, but can also leisurely recreate the world since no one knows when the seventh day will come. 

This is Damascus, who has enough sand to trace the trails of her thieves, swoop them up and turn them into dust. 

She has enough lovers to use up the ink of the world, and enough water to drown all five continents. 

She has enough minarets for her atheists to breathe in the fragrances of angels, and enough chimneys to blacken with soot the face of the universe. 

She has enough dead for Israfil to continue to blow his trumpet and announce their resurrections, enough time to arrange for a kiss with a shooting star, and enough lust for the bees of the universe to be summoned to her nectar. 

She has enough patience to wait for a climax with the force of an earthquake, and enough shoes and slippers hanging in al-Hamidiyah market to whack fifty deserving dictators. 

She has enough clotheslines to expose the world’s dirty laundry, and enough balconies for all the peoples of Asia to leisurely sip their coffee and smoke their cigarettes. 

She has enough kisses to hand out to all deprived lepers, and enough screams to voice on behalf of the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, for they did not get their chance to scream. 

She has enough wine to intoxicate all Arabs, and enough sleep to fulfill the dreams of all prophets. 

She has enough endings for eighty Iliads, and enough embryos to fuel the next wars. 

She has as many poets as there are traffic police, as many poems as traffic violations, and women who come in all colors of the rainbow, and in ultraviolet and infrared. 

Damascus does not care to catch up to anyone. She remains unsolved like a riddle. 

And while everyone pants, spears, and swims, she stands ahead of them awaiting them at their destination.

Damascus cannot be divided into two axes. She is not like Beirut, divided into West and East Beirut, nor is she like Cairo divided into Ahly and Zamalek, nor like Paris into de Gaulle and Vichy, nor like London into east and west of the Thames, nor like Dubai into Bur Dubai and Deira. She is not like Amman, split into Fedayeen or Jordanians, nor like Baghdad with one green area and the other the color of blood. 

Damascus is one and undivided, for if you knock her Bab Tuma gate, a window will open for you at the gate of Bab al-Jabiyah; and if you find Bab Msala’s gate locked, you will have keys for Bab al-Srijah.

Don’t waste your time on trying to figure her out, for she mocks those who claim to protect her and who threaten to tame her. You may be tempted to embrace her or perhaps to run away from her, to take a photo of her or to preserve her in whole. You may desire to enter her as a conqueror or as a tourist, as a guard or a victim, erasing and remembering everything at once.

Meanwhile, she pulls out a long Alhamra cigarette, lights it with five Alfaras matchsticks, and utters one sentence to all:

“This is Damascus, you sons of bitches!” 

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Translator’s note

Alfaras matchsticks are known to be a bad Syrian brand, where it may take up 5 matchsticks to light a fire. Of the figures mentioned in the poem, Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (691-743) was the tenth Umayyad caliph, known to be a great patron of the arts and also a fierce ruler; “Falcon of Quraysh” was a title of Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu’awiya ibn Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (731- 788), who died in the battle of the Highway of the Martyrs in 732; Ibn Asaker (1105-1175) was a Sunni Islamic scholar and historian who documented The History of Damascus; and Yazid killed Hussein, the brother of Zainab, and his body lay next to hers. Also note that Damascus is known for its seven gates built throughout history and ones that date back to the Roman age.

“This is Damascus, You Sons of Bitches” was first originally published on Nov 6, 2005 in Oxygen (issue 21) and reposted on tens of Arabic websites. Later, it was published in Azzam’s Tahtaniyyat (Things Beneath), 2010. Those interested can download a free copy of the book; the poem can be found on page 70. Also, a recitation of an excerpt of the Arabic, in the author’s voice, is available on YouTube.

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Fadi Azzam is a Syrian novelist and writer, and is the author of Sarmada (2011), longlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as Huddud’s House (2017), longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.  He was the Culture and Arts Correspondent for Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. His opinion columns have appeared in the NY Times and a number of newspapers across the Middle East and Arab Gulf.  His piece, “If you are Syrian these days” was recently published in Gutter magazine.  

Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds her PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree is in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma.  Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.

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